USA's chaotic group stretch ends with win-feeling loss and knockout berth

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RECIFE, Brazil – Losers of a match that the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation called “the biggest game we’ve ever played,” U.S. players and coaches hugged each other in the center of a sodden field, applauded the fans who cheered them on and smiled broadly as they chatted with reporters.

From the start, it was a surreal day.

The Americans awoke to flooded streets, the result of another night of heavy rain that fell on this beachfront city in northeast Brazil. They saw residents pushing cars and motorcycles through thigh-high water as they made their way to Arena Pernambuco. They soon learned that family and friends hoping to attend the game either never made it to the stadium or simply stayed behind at the hotel.

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A few hours later, the U.S. departed for Sao Paulo defeated but deliriously happy. Germany outplayed and outscored the Americans, 1-0, in a Group G finale rife with sentiment and storylines. But Portugal’s concurrent 2-1 win over Ghana meant that the U.S. paid no price. Both the U.S. and Cristiano & Co. finished 1-1-1. But the Americans, with a significantly superior goal differential, earned second place in the four-team group and a date with Belgium in the World Cup’s round of 16.

“It would have been nice to be celebrating after the last game in terms of the performance we put in, but at the same time, being able to advance out of the difficult group that we were in, getting into the knockout stages, it doesn’t matter how it happens," U.S. captain Clint Dempsey said. "You’re there, so you enjoy the moment.”

Defender Matt Besler said the team felt “joy, relief, proud of the effort that we put through,” when the video board in Recife confirmed Portugal’s win in Brasilia.

“Obviously we didn’t qualify just because of this game,” he said. “We qualified because of all three [games in the group stage]. All three of these games mattered, and we did enough to advance.”

Although it marked the first time the U.S. survived the first round in consecutive World Cups, there has been more at stake in other games. The 2002 quarterfinal comes to mind. The U.S. even has a semifinal appearance on its resume, although that came back in 1930. But the Germany game was bigger, USSF president Sunil Gulati said, “Because the country is paying attention in a way that it’s never paid attention.”

He was referring not only to recent TV ratings, but to Thursday’s spontaneous celebration that appeared to close 34th street near the Empire State Building and the bosses throughout the U.S. who let employees take a two-hour lunch. Parks hosing public viewings were packed.

“Would it have been nice to get a point or a win? Sure. But the important thing is all those fans, they knew what we had to do,” Gulati said. “It’s a little bit of an odd feeling, right? Because you’ve lost the last game. But we’re advancing, and we said from day one, got to beat Ghana and then we get a point somewhere … Germany’s a great team. Great credit to them. They’re a very, very good team and they were better than us today. But we did what we needed to do.”

And they overcame some chaos to do it. The hours before a game like Thursday’s are sketched out and planned meticulously, but Recife had no regard for coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s schedule. The flooding and gridlock delayed the team’s trip from its downtown hotel to suburban São Lourenço da Mata and then its match preparation.

“It was a bizarre day. When we woke up it felt like there was a hurricane last night,” Besler said. “We’re driving in and our bus takes 50 minutes instead of 25 and as we’re driving, we’re seeing half the town in water. We get to the stadium and we find out that we’re not allowed to warm up on the field … Both teams had to warm-up on the sidelines. It’s something I’ve never done before. It’s the biggest game of your life and you can’t get onto the field and get touches before the game. All you can do is run 15 yards up and down the sideline to get ready. We had to make those adjustments.”

Germany was comfortable. The U.S. wasn’t. Die Mannschaft was in total control for the first 20 minutes, bossing both the ball and the Americans with its dynamic, fluid attack. Klinsmann’s team couldn’t find an outlet. It looked a bit similar to periods during the opener against Ghana, but the Germans maneuvered far closer to goal and were much more menacing. Goalkeeper Tim Howard was in command, however, and Besler, Omar Gonzalez and a couple of German errors kept the favorites from scoring.

“We knew it was going to be a very tricky game with our kind of situation, where a tie was enough [to advance], and it was not easy to handle it mentally,” Klinsmann said. “We kind of had a little too much respect [for Germany] in the first 20-25 minutes of the game, then the nerves kind of settled a little bit.”

The ball was slick and the field was soaked. Thomas Müller’s unstoppable 55th-minute shot staked the Germans to a deserved lead, but they couldn’t find a second. Meanwhile, as the clock ticked, some U.S. thoughts turned toward Brasilia. During the so-called biggest game in American history, another one started to matter more. Ghana and Portugal were tied, 1-1, but a 2-1 Black Stars victory would have eliminated the U.S. if it couldn’t salvage a draw.

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“With about 15 minutes left, I wanted to know,” Besler said. “I didn’t want to know early on because we all wanted to go out and play the game our way … but then I think with about 15-20 minutes left, it’s smart to know what’s going on in the other game, in case you need a goal. If you need to go for the win, you need to know that.”

Electronic communication is forbidden on the team bench, so a U.S. Soccer staffer was running back and forth delivering updates. Up in his suite, Gulati, also a member of the FIFA Executive Committee, initially failed to convince a stadium official to switch their TV to the Ghana-Portugal game.

“Then at the 80-minute mark, they found a way to do it,” he said. “Apparently having this ‘FIFA’ thing on my badge has finally meant something … the Group of Death, I died a few times up there.”

Around the same time, Ronaldo, who broke U.S. hearts in Manaus with his 95th-minute assist, lifted Portugal into the lead. At that point, Germany would have had to score three times in about 12 minutes to put the Americans in goal-differential danger.

“We didn’t really have much of an idea what was going on in the other game. I think with like 10 minutes left, Tim Howard came up and said a score, but I have no idea how he got that information,” Gonzalez said.

Besler, the other center back, knew.

“Our goalkeeper coach, Chris Woods, was signaling to Timmy Howard,” he said. Woods held up two fingers on one hand and one on the other.

“That’s all he said: 2-1. So I look back at Timmy and Timmy’s like, ‘OK, that doesn’t help me. Who?’ Then Woods gave the thumbs up.”

That meant Portugal was in the lead.

Half a field away, Dempsey was one of the few people on the planet who cared but had no clue.

“That’s why I was pushing at the end,” he exclaimed. “I was trying to help the team get a draw, because I knew that with the draw we would for sure go through. But I didn’t know what the [Ghana-Portugal] score was.”

Sure enough, the U.S. managed two of its four shots in the final moments. Substitutes DeAndre Yedlin and Alejandro Bedoya anchored a counterattack that resulted in a blocked Bedoya shot. Seconds later, Dempsey headed over the crossbar from short range.

Then both whistles blew, one in Recife, where the losers were winners, and one in Brasilia, where the winners were losers.

“I was saying in the locker room, last game’s draw [with Portugal] felt like a loss and today’s loss felt like a win. It’s pretty weird. But hey, our mission from the very beginning was to get to the next round, and job well done,” Gonzalez said.

Added Besler: “That only happens in a World Cup, I’m sure, those emotions."

Klinsmann, of course, was thrilled to be moving on, his method and player selections vindicated on the biggest stage. The former World Cup and European Championship winner knows a thing or two about knockout-round soccer and said Thursday that the July 1 game against Belgium presented “a very clear picture in front of you.”

He said, “You have to win the game, no matter how, you have to win in extra time or penalty shootout. You prepare for one game at a time and in a group phase, everybody’s kind of still … ‘If this happens or if that happens. What is the other team doing?’ This is now all gone and it’s a good feeling.”

On Thursday in Recife, the picture was hardly clear. It was chaotic and confusing. But ultimately, for the U.S., beautiful.

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